Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz: Theatrical performance in Panna Maria tells story of Polish priest who made the ultimate sacrifice as a prisoner at Auschwitz
by Bain Serna
Aug 23, 2012 | 2282 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Actor Leonardo Defilippis performs as Maximilian Kolbe.
Actor Leonardo Defilippis performs as Maximilian Kolbe.
PANNA MARIA – In one of the darkest and most destructive chapters of human history, there arise those who shine a great light in the terrible darkness, giving hope and courage in the midst of unspeakable evil. A theatrical presentation of the true-life story of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who took a courageous stand against the murderous tyranny of the Nazis during World War II, was given in Panna Maria on August 16.

Maximilian Kolbe was born in January of 1894 in Zdunska Wunda, Poland, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. He was raised in a devout Catholic home and from an early age showed a devotion and faith that would characterize his entire life.

Kolbe took his final vows in 1914 while in Rome and became a fully ordained Franciscan priest in 1918. Father Kolbe later founded “The Knights of the Immaculata,” whose mission it was to convert non-believers and restore the world to Christ, as well as to spiritually equip and encourage those of the faith.

Father Kolbe became a very prolific journalist and publisher in the areas of religious and devotional materials in a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and other forms of publication. Father Kolbe and his Immaculata friars ran a highly successful modern printing press that had a monthly magazine circulation of over a million, and a daily newspaper that had a circulation of more than 130,000.

The Nazi war machine invaded Poland in 1939, bring death, destruction, and systematic oppression to the Polish people. As the Nazi army swept through Poland, many people fleeing the onslaught found refuge in Father Kolbe’s friary, including 2,000 Jews.

During the subsequent Nazi occupation of Poland, Father Kolbe used his publications to speak out against the Nazis and their atrocities and war crimes. This bold and courageous stance led to his arrest on February 17, 1941 and he was jailed in Pawiak jail in Warsaw. On May 28, 1941, he was transferred to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.

Father Kolbe endured forced labor and many beatings while at Auschwitz, yet still was a pillar of selfless kindness and dignity to his fellow prisoners. He often gave much of his meager food rations to other prisoners and always encouraged others to hold to their faith.

At the end of July in 1941, a prisoner escaped. Whenever a prisoner escaped, ten prisoners were chosen at random to be put in an underground bunker where they were all left to starve to death. This brutal and cruel method was used to deter other prisoners from trying to escape.

All the prisoners were lined up and Nazi commandant Karl Fritsch randomly chose ten men to be put into the starvation bunker to die an extremely slow and agonizing death by starvation and dehydration. One of the men chosen was a man named Francis Gajowniczek. When he was chosen, Gajowniczek cried out desperately about his wife and children that he had. As the ten men were being led away, Father Kolbe stepped out of the line and offered to take Gajowniczek’s place in the starvation bunker. The surprised commandant Fritsch agreed. All those present at that moment were amazed that Father Kolbe would willingly take the place of a condemned man he didn’t even personally know, knowing full well that a slow and torturous death awaited him.

Father Kolbe and his nine condemned companions were put in the underground bunker where they would be left with no food or water until they died. During the following two weeks, songs and hymns were heard coming from the bunker, as well as prayers. Much to the astonishment of the guards, no screams and begging for food and water were ever heard from the ten men.

After two weeks, Father Kolbe was the only one that remained alive. He was given an injection of carbolic acid that killed him. His body was cremated in the Auschwitz ovens. Because of Kolbe’s incredible act of compassion, Gajowniczek would survive Auschwitz and the war. He lived until the age of 93 and died in 1995.

Maximilian Kolbe was beatified by Pope Paul IV in 1971 and was canonized as a saint and declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982. Saint Maximilian Kolbe is considered the patron saint of prisoners, political prisoners, families, drug addicts, and journalists.

Leonardo Defilippis was inspired to tell the remarkable story of the life of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Defilippis is an actor, producer, and director with 36 years of professional experience in stage, television, feature films, and radio programming. Defilippis is founder and president of Saint Luke Productions, which brings various dramas about the life of Christ and saints to audiences by DVD, feature film, and theatrical productions.

Defilippis came to Panna Maria as part of a nation-wide tour where he performs a one-man play that brings to life the profound story of Saint Maximilian. As a one-man play, Defilippis plays multiple characters and skillfully transitions from character to character during the performance.

“When I read about Maximilian’s life, I was so engaged because he is a modern person. He lived during World War I and World War II,” reflected Defilippis before the performance. “He dealt with the evils of the Nazis and Communism. How he dealt with people who were killing, persecuting, taking away the rights of others, government oppression, and suppression of freedoms is just an incredible inspiration. When I got into it, I found his life to be very touching, very moving. What really inspired me was the witness of his life.”

Defilippis shares about how Kolbe’s example is relevant for all times and with all people.

“He’s relevant to our age because he speaks truth, which is always being suppressed in one way or another. He’s relevant because history repeats itself. We always have to be reminded of our history because many of us forget the past.”

The production Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz was hosted by the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and was held at the Panna Maria Hall. “Panna Maria is the oldest and first Polish settlement in U.S. history –a fitting location for the presentation of a Polish hero. People – both Christian and not - came from different towns to the free-admission showing and were moved by what they saw.

“When humanity was at its worst, he showed humanity at its best,” said Father Wieslaw Iwaniec, a native of Poland who is now serving at Immaculate Conception Church. “With him there was no hatred, no looking for revenge. He had the capacity to love, to forgive, because of his relationship to God.”

Father Iwaniec speaks with conviction when asked about the ultimate lesson the life of Saint Maximilian Kolbe gives us in our modern, distracted times.

“The way to happiness is not when you live for yourself in the way our selfish and narcissistic society often tells us,” he says. “It is the other way around – we are made by God to live for others and to show His love to the world.”
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